February 21, 2011

2 My Oscar Picks, Part 6: 1961

This is a continuation of the post on past Academy Awards, comparing the winners with my own choices, that I began last week. I'll be covering the years 1961-1965, presenting my thoughts on one year each day this week. Today: 1961.

From 1961 on, the Academy Awards become more and more problematic for me. In this decade the Academy began seriously grappling with the question of what the awards were about. They had traditionally been for English-language movies (although British films were routinely slighted in the nominating process and, when they were nominated, rarely won). Before the 1960s, only one foreign language movie had ever received a nomination for best picture, La Grande Illusion in 1938. Even though the screenwriters branch regularly nominated foreign language films during the 1940s and 1950s, beginning with Children of Paradise and Open City in 1946, these nominations never resulted in a win. But in 1961 Sophia Loren received the first nomination for a performance in a foreign language film (Two Women), and she won. That same year Federico Fellini received the first ever directing nomination for a foreign language film, for La Dolce Vita. From this time on, such nominations became more frequent.

Were Academy voters trying to redefine the Oscar as an international award like those of the major European film festivals? If that was the intention, it was done in a confusingly inconsistent and selective way, with only the superstars of international cinema getting nominations, and after Loren (who was, after all, a major Hollywood star) never again winning until Roberto Benigni in 1998. If nominations for foreign language films were routinely done and done fairly, then the nominations would often be dominated by such films, and the Oscars would lose what I feel is their main purpose—awards for achievement in English-language filmmaking. Giving film awards on a truly international basis seems to me to be more the province of critics' groups and the international film festivals, which are prepared to be genuinely inclusive, than of the Academy. When Federico Fellini was nominated for best director in 1961 for La Dolce Vita and again in 1963 for , he should by any objective standard have won. Yet because of my strong belief that under normal circumstances the Oscars should be awards for English-language movies, I ignored Fellini's nominations and most subsequent ones like them.


The Winner: West Side Story
My Pick: West Side Story

The Winner: Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins, West Side Story
My Pick: Robert Rossen, The Hustler

The Winner: Maximillian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg
My Pick: Paul Newman, The Hustler

The Winner: Sophia Loren, Two Women
My Pick: Sophia Loren, Two Women

The Winner: George Chakiris, West Side Story
My Pick: George C. Scott, The Hustler

The Winner: Rita Moreno, West Side Story
My Pick: Rita Moreno, West Side Story

The Winner: Through a Glass Darkly
My Pick: Through a Glass Darkly

West Side Story's Romeo and Juliet story of a doomed love affair between young lovers from cultures at odds, the street scenes and other authentic locations that at the time were so novel for the film musical and yet so appropriate to the story, the energetically staged dances, above all the great songs—all these things work so well together that they make the movie irresistible. So I had no problem going along with the Academy's choice for best picture. I also have no problem with occasionally dividing the best picture and best director awards between a spectacular entertainment and a smaller but more artistic film, so for best director I went with Robert Rossen for The Hustler, for me the year's other great American movie.

I've always been surprised by Maximillian Schell's award for best actor for Judgment at Nuremberg. That he wasn't well known in Hollywood and that Spencer Tracy was also nominated for the same movie, which until later years almost invariably resulted in a divided vote that assured neither nominee would win, seemed to argue against his getting the award. Moreover, his wasn't a performance that particularly stood out in a movie filled with well-known actors. But Schell did have the imprimatur of the New York Film Critics Circle, which seemed to have a lot of influence on the Oscars in those days, and it's probable that Academy voters felt Judgment, which received eleven nominations, was an important film that deserved recognition of some sort. To my mind there was only one choice for best actor this year—Paul Newman giving his best performance ever in The Hustler. Does anybody ever think about Schell's performance today? Yet when Newman received his "career achievement" Oscar more than twenty-five years later, it was for reprising his role of Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, a clear indication that the Academy had never forgotten The Hustler, and maybe even that they regretted not giving Newman the Oscar the first time around.

The Academy also followed the lead of the New York critics in giving the best actress Oscar to Sophia Loren, an award I'm not entirely comfortable with for reasons I've already explained. Still, Loren was nominated, and it was a big, colorful performance (in a role originally intended for Anna Magnani), so I went along with the Academy this time despite my misgivings and despite the fact that all of the five nominated actresses gave excellent performances. George C. Scott was initially the favorite for best supporting actor but publicly declined his nomination, and this apparently steered a lot of voters away from him (even though his disapproval of the awards didn't have the same effect when he was nominated for Patton several years later). But I would have voted for him nevertheless. I stuck with the Academy's choice of Rita Moreno for best supporting actress and also its choice of Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, a masterpiece, as best foreign language film. Biggest omission: Deborah Kerr, best actress for The Innocents, my personal favorite of all her performances.

Tomorrow I'll continue with my thoughts on the Academy Awards for 1962.


  1. R.D.

    WEST SIDE STORY still holds the excitement and thrill for me that it had when I watched it as kid with my parents on Broadway. The songs as you mention are wonderful, the choreography is outstanding. THE HUSTLER would run a close second. The films are so different it is impossible to put against each other. And yes, Newman should have won for his portrayal of Fast Eddie. This is great R.D.

  2. John, it's good to hear from you. An interesting point about "West Side Story" and "The Hustler" being so different. You explained my decision to split the picture and director votes better than I did! Apples and oranges. I've always loved "West Side Story." I know several people who first became aware of movie musicals because of this film. I even have a friend, a former film editor in Hollywood, who progressed from "West Side Story" to opera, eventually becoming an opera fanatic.